Search SBL
 









SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Portrayal of Jews in Comics and Popular Culture in the Classroom

The daily (or, in some cases, weekly) comic strip remains a preeminent form of popular culture. Although some strips are geared to young readers, many others are aimed at adults. Religion does not figure prominently in such strips, but Jews and Judaism do appear with sufficient frequency to make them worthy of analysis. For the most part, I have left it to others to mine the richness of Jews and comic books, including the creation of many of the most popular superheroes. A wonderful example of the intersection of the comic strip and the comic book is provided by a "Funky Winkerbean" strip from July 2003 [see illustration 1].

In many instances, as in "Family Circus," "Zits," or "Funky Winkerbean," it is simply noted that a given character is Jewish. Dick Tracy's partner, Sam, had a recurrent role in that strip, and his Judaism was referred to more than once. Several years ago, an Orthodox Jewish high school athlete was introduced into the "Gil Thorp" strip in a recurring storyline that ran for almost a year. Jews and Judaism also figure occasionally in New Yorker cartoons and prominently in some of the newer strips that are drawn by Jewish cartoonists. On a more serious and controversial level, "B.C" 's Easter Sunday strip of 2001 was widely criticized as crudely insensitive to Jews, if not actually anti-Semitic.

In my research, I look at examples from these and other strips to uncover the various ways in which they portray Jews and Judaism. In common with studies of other media, our analysis is sensitive to the general "rules" of comic strips and the specific characteristics of individual comic strips and their creators. I sincerely believe that these popular culture materials are as worthy as any other of serious (but, I hope, not deadening) research and analysis and that they can play a role in effective classroom teaching. In many contexts, they can also function as an ideal way to raise larger questions about the portrayal of Jews in popular culture within other societies and at other times.

Examples

One of Jeremy's friends in "Zits" is Brittany, identified as Jewish in a strip from December 2000, in which she counsels: "Look, Jeremy. Everybody knows that the second Christmas is the crucial holiday for couples." By the last panel, she concludes: "I am SO lucky to be Jewish"; and Jeremy wonders: "Is it too late for me to convert?" Someone who views this character is isolation may assume that she is drawn with a stereotypical and unflattering "Jewish" body. In fact, all of the characters in this strip are caricatured-Brittany neither more nor less than any other [see illustration 2]. "Family Circle" is in general as inoffensive as a comic strip could be. Its reference to a little boy's wearing a star that had once belonged to David is in line with this, but "Arnold Roth is lucky-his mother is Christmas, and his father is Hanukkah," with its seeming endorsement of intermarriage is, intentionally are not, potentially more troubling to at least some readers.

The circumstances of the inclusion or creation of Jewish characters forms an interesting and occasionally significant corollary to the strip itself. One of the longest-running strips is Dick Tracy. His partner Sam Catchem, is Jewish, as is noted in an incidental fashion on occasion over the years. According to a web source, the circumstances of Sam's partnering with Dick are as follows: When former Tracy partner Pat Patton was promoted to police chief, cartoonist Chester Gould "turned to a visage that he frequently beheld-that of Al Lowenthal, a salesman who handled the licensing of comic strips characters. Lowenthal and Gould [who was Jewish] had become good friends, and one day Lowenthal said, 'You ought to have a Jewish detective in there' (being Jewish himself). Gould took him up on it, and, for good measure, he made Catchem look like Lowenthal."

Once in a while, a character seems Jewish, at least to some readers, but his or her religion is not explicitly brought out. Such is the case of Lovey Saltzman in "For Better or Worse," widely acclaimed as one of the very best comic strips currently in circulation. When I wrote to its creator, Canadian Lynn Johnston, about this, she replied, "Lovey Saltzman is of Polish descent. Her maiden name is Romanowski. She married into the Jewish faith and when her husband passed away, she went back to her Polish customs." As if to give more explicit expression to her Jewish connections, Lovey recently greeted the news of a pregnancy with a hearty "Mazel tov."

Direct contact with cartoonists can yield even greater insights, as is the case with Jerry Jenkins, who draws "Gil Thorp." Even before David Green, a Jewish athlete from the Northeast, made his appearance at the typical Midwestern high school where Gil Thorp is athletic director, I had heard of him (for example, an article in the Jerusalem Post had as its headline, "Jewish Jock Comes to Comics," followed by this opening: "The funny papers are getting a little Yidddishkeit"), Never before, to my knowledge, had a character's Judaism, in this case Orthodox Judaism, played so prominent a role in a mainstream comic. David could not play football on the Sabbath, and thus had to exit the games begun on Friday when sunset approached. Moreover, he developed a friendship, which apparently turned into love, with a non-Jewish girl. These and other adventures occupied the strip through football season into basketball and baseball seasons. Ultimately, David's family returned to the Northeast, but not without some serious, if rather unexpected (in the context) consideration of the implications of interdating [as seen in illustration 3 from June 2002] (Green appeared from the fall of 2001 through the early summer of 2002).

To many, the name Jerry Jenkins is immediately recognizable as one of the authors of the Left Behind series, among other works. The "Gil Thorp" cartoonist is in fact the same Jerry Jenkins. When I wrote to him about his choice of David Green as a character for the strip, he wrote: "I thought that it was a good story idea, and as an Evangelical Christian I can sympathize with the plight of people who follow their convictions and often have to sacrifice or suffer for it. Also, I like to give the lie to the idea that Evangelicals are anti-Semitic. Actually, while we believe Jesus is the Messiah (and I realize that can be anathema to an observant Jew), we are quite the opposite of anti-Semitic." David's interdatng and his apparent lack of observance of dietary laws, among other factors, led (in Jenkins' own words) to "a lot of negatives from Orthodox, who found him not Orthodox enough." David appears actively involved in Jewish study in only one strip, from November 2001 [illustration 4]. In his e-mail to me, Jenkins also denied that the Left Behind series was anti-Semitic.

Jenkins is not the only Conservative Christian cartoonist. More prominent in this role is Johnny Hart, who draws "B.C." and is part of the team responsible for "The Wizard of Id." His "B.C." strip on Easter Sunday 2001 caused a considerable uproar: In panel after panel, the Menorah, the ancient, universally recognized seven-branched symbol of Judaism, is stripped of the lights of its candelabra. One by one they are burned away, destroyed, in response to "the seven last words of Jesus." In the next to the last panel all that remains is a cross. The final panel pictures the empty tomb with a great boulder rolled away. The accompanying caption reads: "Do this in remembrance of me."

As a conservative Christian, Hart has often introduced Christian beliefs and practices into his strip, especially during the Easter season. In so doing, he has used Christian symbols. In my opinion, the Easter strip I have described crosses the line by making such use of a central symbol of Judaism, in effect saying that Judaism has been replaced by Christianity, as a cross takes the place of a menorah in the strip. In statements issued by the syndicator of his strip, Hart vehemently denied such charges, explaining: "I believe that Replacement Theology is the stuff of lunatics and self-deluded fools. I noticed one day that the center section of the Menorah-the sacred symbol of Judaism-bore the shape of the cross. I wanted everyone to see the cross in the menorah. It was a revelation to me, that tied God's chosen people to their spiritual next-of-kin-the disciples of the Risen Christ."

There have been many Jewish cartoonists in the past, including Chester Gould, who created and drew "Dick Tracy." Prominent among younger artists in this category is Hilary Price, who draws "Rhymes with Orange." Among her recurrent themes is Judaism [illustrations 5 and 6]; she says about this, "Judaism 'informs her worldview,' and she is not afraid of using it in her work.'I think [my Jewishness] is a placement issue. Where do I see myself in the world? I see myself a Jewish woman; it's one of the things that's going to inform my humor.'" At her web site, http://www.rhymeswithorange.com, one section of the archives bears the title, "How are Jew?" Jewish characters and Jewish themes also play a major part in "Edge City," drawn by Terry and Patty Laban. As stated in their publicity, "Beginning on March 18 [2002]. EDGE CITY will become the first American nationally syndicated comic strip to portray a Jewish family celebrating Passover. A strip that includes an American family's Jewish culture could make a valuable contribution to the diversity of the comic pages" [illustration 7 comes from this series]. Another strip, "The Hots," drawn by Stephen Hersh and Nina Paley, followed with a Passover series of its own in the spring of 2003.

In locating relevant cartoons, I rely on my own reading and looking, on references from friends and colleagues, and occasionally on databases. But even the best database is not complete, since some of the best "Jewish" strips are implicit, rather than explicit. My favorite example in this regard comes from the New Yorker cartoon in which one dog says to another: "It's a dog tradition. Every morning and evening we thank God we're not cats" (in my opinion, an obvious reference to the traditional prayer of Jewish males, thanking God that they were not made females).

Opportunities

My previous research and publication on the Bible in the comic strip (see especially "The New Testament in the Comics," Bible Review 9 [1993], 40-45; and "Extra! Extra! Philistines in the Newsroom!" Bible Review 16 [2000], 50-53) have been invaluable as I have expanded my interests to include Jews and Judaism and, in other contexts, the ancient world in comic strips. I would encourage my colleagues to consider forays into religion and popular culture as being equally valuable and as potentially meaningful as any other research they conduct. They should also make the same assessment when hiring and in recommendations for tenure and promotion.

I have also found these materials to be valuable in the classroom. For example, they can serve to stimulate student thought on questions relating to caricatures or stereotypes of Jewish behavior and physical attributes. We can compare contemporary representations of Jews with generally far less benign ones from the past. And I can invite students to consider the implications of "B.C.," "Gil Thorp," "Rhymes with Orange," and "Edge City," among others, where—for better or worse—religion, including the Jewish religion, and religious values on occasion play a rather prominent role.

I don't apologize for my interests in popular culture, and I don't hide my enthusiasm for the materials and for their analysis. It is about time that all of us consider and appreciate coming down from the ivory tower and enjoying what the rest of the world has known, and enjoyed, for such a long time.

Leonard Greenspoon holds the Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at Creighton University.

Illustrations:



1.

Copyright Batom, Inc. Reprinted with special permission of North American Syndicate

2.

Copyright Zits Partnership. Reprinted with special permission of King Features Syndicate

3.

Reprinted with permission of Tribune Media Services

4.

Reprinted with permission of Tribune Media Services

5.

Copyright Hilary B. Price. Reprinted with special permission of King Features Syndicate

6.

Copyright Hilary B. Price. Reprinted with special permission of King Features Syndicate

7.

Copyright. Reprinted with special permission of King Features Syndicate

Citation: Leonard Greenspoon, " Portrayal of Jews in Comics and Popular Culture in the Classroom," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Oct 2004]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=329

 
JOIN SBL   |  DONATE TO SBL   |  CONTACT SBL   |  BIBLE ODYSSEY   |  REVIEW OF BIBLICAL LITERATURE   |  SBL TWITTER   |  BIBLE ODYSSEY TWITTER

© 2019, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.